Commonly grouped with vegetables, mushrooms are neither plant or animal, but are classified in a kingdom apart… Fungi.
What’s kept in the dark and fed bulls***t? There’s nothing pretty about a mushroom, yet their earthy flavour is greatly prized from Provence to Hokkaido. Commonly grouped with vegetables, mushrooms are neither plant or animal, but are classified in a kingdom apart…Fungi. Equally at home in peasant fare or haute cuisine, mushrooms have long been popular, with evidence the Chinese cultivated shiitake mushrooms on oak logs as far back as the 13th century. In England, mushrooms had their detractors as noted in the Grete Herbal of 1526 which warned ‘There be two maners of them, one maner is deedly and sleath them that eateth of them and be called tode stoles’.
Mushrooms are nature’s recyclers. Where plants obtain energy from sunlight, mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll and get their nutrients from decomposing plants or animals. However, the mushrooms you buy are more likely to have been cultivated on compost and straw rather than roadkill.
Culinarily, Australia has come a long way since canned champignons, the last decade has seen a veritable mushroom explosion, where even supermarkets now offer exotic fungi. Following is a description of just a few of the varieties now commonly available. The familiar white mushroom, Agaricus, is grouped according to it’s stage of growth, starting with the baby, cutesy button mushroom, then cup and lastly the long-in-the-tooth flat mushroom, often favoured squashed on a barbeque. Mushrooms’ earthy aroma is due to the substance, octenol, generated in the gills, which explains why the large flat ones have more smell than button mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms are almost meaty in their texture and flavour. Terrific in soups and casseroles where a stronger flavour is required, shiitake also contain a therapeutic substance, lentinan, which helps boost the immune system. Shiitake mushrooms are often used in Chinese and Western herbal medicine. The Oyster or abalone mushroom is a pale, shell like fungus whose subtle taste absorbs the flavours of the food it’s cooked with. A swarthy relative to Agaricus, the Swiss Brown mushroom has a deep colour and flavour and holds it’s shape well when cooked. The naturopath in me is drawn to Swiss Browns as the ‘brown rice’ version of Agaricus, although there is no evidence Swiss Browns are more nutritious than any other mushroom. Enoki are weird little guys, so pale and spindly they look like they recently emerged from Gollum’s cave. I haven’t been game to taste them, but apparently they are crunchy and creamy. A slimy customer, Black fungus looks like something you’d slip on in a dark alley. However, looks deceive, and it is surprisingly delicious in Asian inspired meals. The truffle is not strictly a mushroom, but a distant and aristocratic fungal relative. While mushrooms ‘fruit’ above ground, truffles keep their treasures beneath. Truffle devotees are addicted to the subtle yet pungent aroma and flavour of their drug of choice.
Delicious though they are, mushrooms are nutritional lightweights, over 90% water, they provide minimal calories (23 kcal per 100g), carbohydrate fat or protein. However, it’s what’s left over that is interesting from a health perspective. All mushrooms, but particularly the shiitake and oyster contain an antioxidant, ergothioneine, which protects against damage to cells, and improves the detoxifying function of the liver. This is retained even when cooked. Some studies suggest it helps prevent breast and prostate cancer. Mushrooms also contain reasonable amounts of copper, folate (B9), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) and the antioxidant mineral, selenium. Additionally, the type of fibre in mushrooms is chitin (structurally similar to crab shells!) which helps lower cholesterol.
All in all, mushrooms are a tasty and valuable addition to our diet. Even if they’re not a vegetable.
Mushrooms remain active after harvesting, which means they breathe and sweat, becoming most unattractive when confined to plastic bags. Store them in moisture-absorbing (not drying) material eg a clean tea towel to avoid that nasty slimy thing happening.